Rena flotsam – just add water and stir

Debris from the shipwrecked Rena container vessel is lining the Bay of Plenty coast, 36 hours after the large ship broke apart in six metre storm swells.

Thousands of bags of milk powder have washed up at Waihi Beach and elsewhere along the coast, along with four containers at various locations.

Another seven containers are known to be within a mile of the shore, and container recovery company Braemar Howells is using tugs to tow them offshore. Aerial observation flights suggest that up to 40 containers were in the water, all of them north of the harbour entrance.

Braemar Howells Operations Manager Claudene Sharp said the priority was to prevent as many of them as possible from beaching. As of this morning, 21 have been tagged with buoys and they will be corralled and collected as soon as conditions allow.

Teams are already on Waihi Beach to secure and start removing the debris, with another investigating unconfirmed reports of a container ashore just inside the Bowentown entrance. A further report of a container ashore at Papamoa Beach this morning was investigated and found to be false.

The public are urged to report all sightings of debris to 0800 333 771, but not to try to remove anything because of the risk of contamination or injury. Debris reported this morning includes timber, milk powder and plastic material.

While no beaches have officially been closed today, surf lifesavers are cautioning people against going into the water and security staff employed by Braemar Howells and police will restrict access to areas around containers and debris if necessary.

National On Scene Commander Alex van Wijngaarden urged people to use common sense. “The beaches are open, but there is inevitably going to be a lot of mess and disturbance for the next few days while this is cleaned up and we would like people to use common sense and stay well away from the debris – in some cases this will mean staying out of the water as well as away from material washed up on the beach.”

The three nautical mile exclusion zone remains in place around the Rena, along with a 1500 feet aerial exclusion zone. This is to ensure the safety of shipping and aircraft, and enable response operations to continue unhindered by civilian sea and air movements. Any changes to the exclusion zone will be decided by the Bay of Plenty Harbourmaster.

Trained oil spill response teams are prepared to respond to any reports of fresh oil on the beaches and two vessels are prepared for on-water oil recovery within the harbour if sea conditions allow, Mr Alex van Wijngaarden said. So far there is no indication of a significant release of oil from the Rena, although a sheen of oil is still visible off the vessel. Anyone seeing fresh oil on shore is asked to call 0800 OILSPILL (0800 645 774).

Meanwhile, wildlife teams brought in six little blue penguins overnight and this morning, but only three have them have proved to be oiled, and are now being rehydrated and rehabilitated, Oiled Wildlife Response Manager Kerri Morgan said.

Teams are patrolling beaches this morning and will respond to all reports of oiled wildlife. However, Ms Morgan said that many penguins that were reported as being oiled were found to be moulting juvenile birds, and were not affected by oil. Please report any sightings of oiled wildlife to 0800 333 771.

Salvors have not yet been able to land on the stern section of the Rena to assess its state, although this morning’s aerial observation showed no significant change in its position on the Astrolabe Reef. MNZ Salvage Advisor Jon Walker said that internal flooding meant that the stern section would not float if it came off the reef. The bow section of the vessel is still wedged firmly in its original position, but is suffering internal damage from wave action now that it is fully exposed to the sea.

Salvors are working with Braemar Howells to update the number of containers still on board.